116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Joanne Ribble, who died in 2012 at age 81, was well-known locally as an arts advocate. Her closet friends, however, knew she also was an accomplished, well-trained artist. Sean Ulmer, executive director at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, knew her for years before finding out about her talent at the easel.
Now about 20 of her drawings and paintings are on display through April 30 in the temporary exhibition gallery at the back of the museum's second floor.
It's a museum she loved enough to spend nearly 30 years serving on its board of directors and board of trustees.
'I knew Joanne, the woman,' Ulmer said. 'Joanne, the great museum supporter, the woman who gave great parties, loved to entertain, loved to do whatever she could for the advancement of the museum. I, personally, only discovered that she was an artist, too, very late in our relationship. ...
'It was a side of her that I did not know until she pulled back the curtain ever so slightly for me to take a look.'
That came when organizers of a past Sight & Sound fundraiser wanted to feature a silent auction of artwork by community members who weren't known as artists, but 'were compelled to create work,' Ulmer said. A trip to Ribble's Cedar Rapids home yielded a treasure trove of drawings tucked beneath a guest room bed.
'Her close circle of friends knew she was an artist, but that wasn't her primary calling,' Ulmer said. 'Only by going through this enormous stack of drawings did I realize that she's been doing this for a long time.'
Born in Fargo, N.Dak., on Feb. 25, 1931, Ribble grew up in St. Louis and attended Washington University there. She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from American University in Washington, D.C., and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa. She worked as a fashion designer in St. Louis, Atlanta and Chicago before marrying trial lawyer Donald Ribble in 1972 and moving to Cedar Rapids.
'None of that was known to me,' Ulmer said. 'I think she was drawing a very clear line between her role as a supporter of the museum and her own interest as an artist, to the point where she actually sort of hid it away.'
Daughter Liz Vahlkamp, 52, of St. Louis, said her mother painted in the attic of their home and later at a shared studio in downtown Cedar Rapids, but she didn't see her mother paint much while raising a family.
'She resumed painting later in life,' Vahlkamp said, adding that her mother had 'an element of perfectionism,' and felt her paintings were never quite finished. So when she picked up her brushes again, she reworked some of those pieces.
A champion of art, symphony and opera, Ribble began her service with the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in 1981, when she was first elected to its board of directors. Also an avid gardener, one of the museum's front gardens has been named in her honor, and will be marked by a plaque.
Her husband, who died Nov. 4, shared her passion for the museum and local causes. He invited museum officials back to his home after his wife's death, to choose pieces for the museum's permanent collection. Many of those works will be on display, along with several paintings loaned by friends.
'Don just passed away, and even though he won't have had the opportunity to see the exhibition, he knew it was underway, and was very excited and happy that we were giving Joanne a one-person show on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of her birth,' Ulmer said.
Vahlkamp thinks her mother would have been flattered that her works were deemed good enough to hang on the museum walls. She did, however, have an earlier large exhibit at Coe College, sold a few through a downtown venue and entered some in competitions.
And while she might feel 'anxious' about having others view her works, Vahlkamp thinks that 'overall, she'd have been pleased and flattered.'
'It's an interesting cross-section of her work,' Kate Kunau, the museum's associate curator, said.
Visitors will see drawings and paintings in various media and sizes, in marker, charcoal, watercolor and oils, ranging from about 20 inches by 16 inches to 4 feet by 3 feet. Most are undated, but show a progression of her style.
'I just fell in love with her work,' Kunau said. 'I think she has — as a fashion designer would — a really strong sense of the human body. Her figural work is really lovely, but then it fragments and abstracts into all these really interesting ways, both in her paintings and in her drawings and prints.'
Ulmer is especially captivated by the immediacy of her work.
'It just resonated with me,' he said. 'Especially in her drawings, which were sometimes very quick studies, where she tries to capture the essence of the figure. She does so in a way that's somewhat representational and somewhat abstract, at the same time. She maintains that same vibrancy in her paintings, as well.
'In her paintings, she creates works that are sort of hybrid images that could be read as human, but could also be read as landscapes, at the same time,' Ulmer said. 'It speaks to her understanding of abstraction, of her understanding of figuration, and how the massing and arrangement of color planes into a composition can create something that operates on multiple levels simultaneously.'
'She had a real vision,' Kunau said.
Ulmer also is thrilled that Ribble's exhibition is running alongside 'Grant Wood and Marvin Cone: Barns, Farms, and America's Heartland,' in the main floor galleries from Feb. 6 to May 15.
'It's nice to have up three local artists at the same time,' he said. 'One uber-famous, with Grant Wood, who was great at self-promotion and could get himself out there. Marvin Cone, who was an extraordinarily well-trained artist who did not ever receive the recognition he should have, and was perfectly content teaching generations of artists after him. And then somebody who was actually very, very shy about her work, was equally competent and pursued a very different vision, but was really a remarkable artist in her own right.
'We're fortunate to have so many talented artists in this region, both past and present.'